The Heartbreak of a Bad Sequel

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shadow of night harkness

When the first book in a series does really well, everyone gets excited. Publishers and booksellers love it, because it means we’ll probably sell lots of books. And readers love it, because it’s easy to be happy about a book from an author you already trust, with characters you already know. Usually, follow-ups to popular books are the closest to a sure thing you get in this magic, mystical business of selling stories.

The down side is, when a series book fails to live up to its predecessors, it’s exponentially disappointing. You feel let down, and even a little betrayed. It’s one thing for a series to start with its best book and end with its weakest (ahem, Hunger Games). But it’s worse when a sequel takes a universe you’ve grown to love and makes it bad … or boring. The sequel to Deborah Harkness’s Discovery of Witches isn’t bad, exactly. But it does get really, really boring

Even in the first book, Harkness’s writing style is a little syrupy for my taste, but the book itself is such perfect escapism that I devoured it anyway. It’s a really fun, really addictive reworking of the witch/vampire/forbidden love dynamic that we’ve all had shoved down our throats lately. But her characters are a little smarter, a little funnier, and have a lot more interesting back stories than most of the teenage vampires who’ve sparkled their way onto our bookshelves and into our theaters lately.

The fact that those characters have me hooked is the only reason I finished Shadow of Night — but without any of the “I-have-to-know-what-happens-just-one-more-page-before-bed” urgency that I’d loved in Discovery Witches.

See, Harkness is a scholar, a bit of a 16th century expert, and, in this book, her characters time travel back to the era of Shakespeare, Queen Elizabeth, and Christopher Marlowe. She obviously has lots of fun playing with these characters and their setting; I just wish I’d had fun reading about them. But I felt like the plot took a backseat to imaginary conversations between playwrights, longwinded descriptions of candlestick makers (or whatever), and detailed descriptions of 16th century fashion. As a history book, it’s all pretty interesting. But, as a love story, it falls flat.

It doesn’t help that the book itself is structured badly, with the interesting-ish middle part bookended by an introductory 100 pages of conversation that does little to nothing to advance the plot, and an “ending” that consists of an extended riff on time travel and magical theory instead of a satisfying conclusion.

Am I being too hard on Shadow of Night? Probably. But that’s the dark side of creating characters that your audience falls in love with — your readers become overprotective and prone to rebellion when you get it wrong. Will I read the third and final book in the series? Of course. I’ve stayed with Matthew and Diana through over 1,000 pages of their story, and I want to see how it turns out. I just hope, with the return of the characters to modern time, we get to return to their story, too. Because I read fantasy books to feel transported to another world, not to feel transported back to history class. Can Fantasy and Sci Fi teach us lessons and incorporate history? Certainly. But a vampire book that feels more like homework than fun? That’s a little ridiculous.

Carrie Rollwagen is co-owner and book buyer at Church Street Coffee & Books.

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